tv Book Discussion on Ordinary Light CSPAN April 11, 2015 4:30pm-4:52pm EDT
> now downing us on booktv tracy k. smith, a pulitzer prize winner and she has written a memoir called "ordinary light." who is kathy. >> guest: kathy is my mother and in the course of thinking about this book realized that person i grew up knowing was so many different people. that's an obvious statement. one of my main wishes in wanting to write about my mother was to explore the impact of her death on my life explore our relationship, think about the different versions of myself that i was with and without her. i also had the really strong wish to bring her to life for my children, who were born after she was gone. it just struck me as so heartbreaking when i was pregnant with my daughter who was now five, she would never
know this person. one night i was lying in bed and my husband said, write a book that will tell them about her. i had such a feeling of anxiousness and fear at the task, but i knew that was exactly what i needed to do. the book became a lot more than that. it became a story about figuring out who i was and who i had been and so i think some of the largest discoveries that a reader or my daughter might make are probably not about my mother but her mother. >> host: one things i got was the differences between you and your mother and your experiences growing up african-american in the united states. >> guest: right. the generational difference is one really big marker that determines a different set of experiences, obviously that she had growing up in the south in
the '30s and '40s and '50s that i had growing up in california and massachusetts in the '70s, '80s 90s. when i was a child i had a hard time framing the questions i had about her experience into words. i knew that there was a huge piece of african-american history that contained pain and that my parented had been experiencing that, and it hurt me to think about that, and so the whole segment of my life i kind of shied away from. i remember learning about the civil rights movement in grade school and seeing those images of people with fire hoses and the national guard and feeling so worried retroactively for the neimi familiar -- the people in my family, and the way i chose to deal with it as a child was to book away from it to allow silence to create a kind of
buffer. i wanted to write into that silence in this book as well and find ways of interrogating that anxiety i had and also trying to come a little bit closer to maybe a kind of empathy with my parents and their parents and the experiences they would have been dealing with as young adults in the u.s. during a time when racial tension and racial violence were at a tremendous height. thinking about this difference between then and now sometimes i'm very saddened by the fact it's not as vastly different. there's a section in this memoir where i remember a story that i was told about a great uncle or great-great uncle who had been murdered bay white man for money that he had obtained from sell something of his own property, and nothing happened.
justice was not served. it wasn't even a question. and thinking about that now, as i went back and was editing the book in preparation for publication, during this year when we have had so many verdicts that don't really feel that different was really chastening. >> host: tracy smith, you also talk about an incident in your childhood where you're in school and teacher tells you you're special, and you're very excited about that. >> guest: yeah. i was in high school. one of my teachers in a well-meaning way said there will be a lot of opportunities that will come your way and you should take advantage of them. i thought, that's great, i'm special, i'm going somewhere, and he tempered the statement with something i don't think was wrong as an adult looking back. he said you're an african-american woman, and that's going to open certain doors for you and you should be receptive to that. when i heard it framed like that
something kind of crumbled inside of me. maybe it was in part the flipside of that same piece of myself that wasn't comfortable thinking about racial difference and the way it implicates us in terms of experience and possibilities. i also lived with that voice in my head for years, and getting into college and wondering to what extent was it a factor of my demographic identity and the extent it was about my own abilities. i think a lot of people wrestle with this. i think it's a complicated issue, and i think there are a lot of disparities in terms of the ways that blacks and whites or people from different ethnic and socioeconomic background live and the opportunities they come into contact with. so i think it's a valid thing to try and seek diversity, in the institutions like princeton
or harvard where i went, but the feeling of shame that might sometimes trigger is something i feel like we need to talk about, and it's a result of lopsided or shortsighted conversation about race and about affirmative action, which was a topic that was kind of loud when i was coming of age. i don't think we figured it out. >> host: somebody who grew up in california, why did you choose harvard? undergrad. >> guest: yeah. i wanted to be in a place that to my mind, had visible history. growing up in california where everything seemed brand new i was really enchanted by the mystique of the
i was wrestling with my mother's illness and being able to stop time in the poem and ask the kinds of questions that elude you in real-time. that seemed like a power i really needed. i wasn't writing many poems that were directly about my muir's illness at the time. -- my mother's illness at the time, but i think that thinking about memory and thinking about how looking at the right thing in the right way could tell you something you didn't think you
knew. all of that was really comforting. grounding for me. when i think back to mat time, i also realize that the kind of devotion i felt for what language could do in a poem was probably a really wonderful alternative to the language of faith i'd grown up with and i think i what sort of struggling to find a kind of comfort within belief and
wasn't seeking to pry myself from a sense of relief but to find a way of feeling confident that the figures to whom i had entrusted my father was sufficiently large and sufficiently mysterious, and i think that the figure in the old testament, the galled of the sistine chapel-didn't seem to fit the bill for me at that point in my life. i was really fascinated by what i could comprehend of physics and thinking about space as a literal place. thinking about some of the images from the hubble space telescope and how they've given a visual vocabulary for the sense of this vast beyond we're somehow part of. and i wanted to try and marry my private sense of belief and my
private sense of grief to something as large and permanent and unknowable as that backdrop, and so that was a big surprise. i didn't think that is why i was writing poems at that time. i'm curious about what the next set of poems will yield in terms of surprises. >> host: where did the title "ordinary light" come from. >> guest: i was looking for a along time for the title of the book and a colleague of mine, evan white, said sometimes a good title can come from a quiet phrase within a book, and so i was going back and re-reading the book and i decided to stop listening for the huge loud markers and to think about gesture that might say a lot about some of the subtler feelings at play in this book the meditations it kind of stemmed from, and there was a moment in -- late in the book where i remembered being out in
an orchard at night, with two friends from high school who had also lost their mothers and we were out there looking up at the night sky and listening to all the night noises and trying to figure out what we believed and who we were, now that we were these motherless girls, and there was this wish that flickered in my mind to be able to run back into the safety of the house where somebody's mother would be, saying, come on girls, time to get to bed. and just the ordinary light of a house that is intact where everyone there is and still present. that image seemed to say to much about what the book was trying to recollect. if i look out at something outside, i think it might also have to do with the small space that we occupy for a short period of our lives, with a family or with the central others that make us who we are,
and how temporary that is and how there's so much either glaring brightness that yields these other kinds of clarities or the dark spaces. what waits for us, what we might not know how to name. so thinking about it in terms of these gradientsss oflight seemed helpful. >> host: there's a period toward the end of your mother's life where she sat up in bed essentially, sick from cancer, and said i know tracy is going to be a writer. >> guest: yeah. >> host: why did you include that in your book? >> guest: it was a moment that really frightened me when it happened and also made my hopeful. it was a strange event because my mother was heavily method indicated at that time -- medicated a that time and sometimes would say things and then immediately say i'm just confused. this is the medication. just ignore that.
and on this night she said she was kind of muttering. i said, what's going on? who are you talking to? she said there are two angels here with me, and one of them just told me you're going to become a writer. and i felt not worry that this might not be rational thought. i felt myself in the presence of something that was very tremendous and terrifying for that reason, thinking that if it is true that at the end of our lives, the veil between this world we know and the world we're about to enter or return to becomes pourous. what is there? what is there watching? and to also hear my mother reflect on this conversation that was -- she was having that
suggested to me a few things. one, that she might really be going, you know. i knew she was dying. but i also was living with a kind of denial that maybe this isn't real. maybe everything will change and everything will be fine. so it kind of made me have to accept that she was accepting, that her life was ending, and then what would that mean? what would that force me to have to accept as well if i were going to be faithful to her sense of her life. it also, i guess, frightened me because it also meant that maybe someone was telling her you can stop worrying about your child this is what will happen. she will be okay. and then of course it also had been affirming a wish i had for myself. seemed really wonderful. all of those feelings terrified
me and in conjunction with one another, and it was something i needed to return to. and dwell on in language. i think so much of what i as a writer am doing is trying to find ways that language can help me understand what happens. maybe what has happened or maybe what is happening in terms of my understanding of what that means and what i should be moving toward as a person, as an individual, language helicopter me calibrate my sense of experience -- helped me calibrate my sense of experience and clarify my sense of what happened. so coming back to memories like that, it was a really matter of trying to come to grips with these things that happened and maybe couldn't face head on in real time. >> host: what it your goal as a professor of creative writing here at princeton?
>> guest: i want to give my students access to the kinds of tools that will help them interrogate the world as they know it, and i don't know there's much more than that. i think that's a really nuanced task involves reading closely and reading differently than one might read in the literature class. and my classroom we're looking at craft-based choices that writers make and trying to say okay using this metaphor, what possibilities are being opened up and how does the writer take advantage of them? and what is yielded? and what do we as readers feel or experience or come to recognize as a result? i think that the writer's wish is to come into what feels like visceral contact with his or her
material, and just because of the nature of time it's either material that happened in the past and that we are trying to return to and understand differently, or material that has happened at a great remove and that we might not have literal access to, that we're curious about. that might be a poem that takes you to another geographical location or another person's experience that is removed from you because of who and where and when you are. but then there are whole regions of the imagination that writing gives us access to and so sometimes we're writing about things that weren't real at all but are premises our minds invent and that might also be important to scour and excavate and question, and i just want to give my students as many tools that might help them to mine
those different kinds of materials. >> host: tracy k. smith, won the pull litter in 2012 for her book of poet try "life on mars." she has written a memoir, "ordinary light. "here's the cover. you're watching booktv on c-span2. we're on location at princeton university. >> booktv is on twitter, follow us to get publishing news scheduling updates, author information, and to talk directly with authors during our live programs. twitter.com/booktv. >> he was offered a position at the end of the summer the middle east desk of the national student association for which he had zero preparation and we went off to another congress, we moved the -- the office moved to washington we moved to washington. it was thrilling. i went back to school.
and then in october, one evening, we had dinner with two people who identified themselves as former nsa officials and after dinner we were driven somewhere northwest of washington it was pitch black to a house and as we approached the house, and as soon as the door opened the phone rang and one of the two men picked up the phone and then turned to my husband and said, i've got an errand to run. i would you come with me? leaving me behind with the second person. we went into the sunroom and he said to me, your husband is doing work of great importance to the united states government. we'd like to -- i'd like to tell you more about the nature of that work. but before i do, i need you to sign this document.